The Name Game

10 Aug

For several years, entertainment reporters, movie biz insiders and/or analysts have been mourning the passing of the institution once known as “The  Movie Star.”  Oh, please don’t misunderstand. I think the general moviegoing public is still as fascinated by the Angelina Jolies and George Clooneys as they ever were, though both of them have had their share of clunkers, and wasn’t Robert Downey Jr. just named the highest paid movie star of the year thanks to his recent turns as Iron Man in both his own movies as well as The Avengers franchise? [1]  Certainly, Hollywood is still willing to pay top dollar for high profile talent. Downey, btw, reportedly earned 75 million in the year or so [2].

On the other hand, movie stars are no longer necessarily the guaranteed draw, or draws, that they once were. Since probably about the 80s and much more so now, the studios and even the big talent agencies have been pushing the idea of the high concept package, and that often means more and more emphasis on easily marketable franchises: movies based on comic books (I mean graphic novels), games, and, of course, sequels. If these movies score with big-name stars such as two-time Oscar nominee Downey, that’s great! If such movies score with lesser known talents, well, that’s probably even better for the studios–at least for awhile–since they are in more enviable positions when it comes to salary/contract negotiations with performers who might still be floating somewhere under the radar of the public consciousness.

Still, the point is what we once thought of as true-blue movie stars are no longer the guaranteed draws they were back in the day–not that every old-time Hollywood star never knew defeat, but, typically, the old studios took great care handling talent, with movies designed to play to a particular performer’s strength; likewise, movies were marketed much differently than they are now. Even so, the public often responded accordingly.  Moviegoers bought tickets to see their favorite stars in a variety of scenarios, often with the reasonable expectation of a good story with excellent performances and production values, and that’s no longer the case to the degree that it once was. Let me give you an example. Less than two years ago, Warner Bros. released Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a post 9-11 movie toplined by two of America’s most beloved stars, Tom Hanks, a two-time Oscar winner, and Sandra Bullock–her first role since the blockbuster The Blind Side, also from Warner’s, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar. The movie, to put it nicely, performed sluggishly at the box office. Now, this isn’t a slam against Hanks or Bullock. Likewise, people might not have been in the mood for a movie that revisited 9-11 so close to the Xmas holiday. No matter. My point is that even with all their years and years of residual audience goodwill, the allure of Hanks and Bullock was simply not a guarantee of box office legs. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that Bullock’s latest smash, The Heat, would work with just anyone. Audiences have been flocking to see what happens when Bullock is specifically paired with the juggernaut known as Melissa McCarthy.


The cast of Big Business (l-r): Lily Tomlin, Bette Midler, Lily Tomlin, and Bette Midler. The Divine Miss M won an American Comedy award for her performances in the film though Tomlin was every bit her equal.

Now, the reason for pointing out this trend can be summed up in exactly two words: Bette Midler. You know, I worked in the movie biz for over twenty years, and one of the things I noticed was the pull that a very select few stars had with the public, and Midler was one of them. During her reign as a top draw in comedies released through Disney’s Touchstone division, patrons at my box office window were more likely to plop down their money and ask for tickets to see “Bette Midler” than they were to ask for her given film by name. If she had a movie playing, customers wanted to see it, and they didn’t even really care what it was called.  This is not as common as you might have imagined. Most people don’t come up and ask for just any ole actor: Meryl Streep, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, Cameron Diaz, Hilary Swank, Jamie Fox, etc. Again, not that those stars haven’t had their share of hits, or that they weren’t occasionally referred to by name. With Midler, it was constant. You know who else customers used to ask for by name with alarming regularity? Ashley Judd. That’s right, Ashely Judd. I noticed this one Saturday when I was selling tickets for Judd’s slickly packaged Ida Lupinoesque “Woman-in-Jep” flick, Double Jeopardy. (See the “jep” part was no exaggeration.) Keep in mind that Judd’s high-profile co-star in this twisty thriller was no less than Texas’s own–Oscar winning–Tommy Lee Jones, but nobody asked for “Tommy Lee Jones” or “Ashley Judd and Tommy Lee Jones.” They wanted to see “Ashley Judd”–to the degree that Judd’s movie spent three weeks at number one in the fall of 1999 [3]. Her follow-up, Eye of the Beholder tanked–but only after opening at #1 on the domestic box office charts. Oh, and once again, people still asked for “Ashley Judd.”   I don’t recall that even Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock were referred to by name with the same consistency as Judd though I do seem to remember that customers frequently asked for “Jodie Foster”–especially during the era of Panic Room and Flight Plan.

As for the men, I can assure you that people quite often ask for “007” rather than the name of any particular James Bond movie–no matter who’s playing the leading role. Way, way, back in the day, customers would quite often ask for “Bronson” (Charles Bronson), “Chuck Norris,” or “Arnold”–as in Schwarzenegger. I guess quite a few ticket buyers chimed in with”Tom Cruise” at one time. Additionally, seemingly everybody is on a first name basis with “Denzel.” I heard “Denzel” much more frequently than I ever heard “Denzel Washington, please.”  Oh, and generally Woody Allen fans will just say “Woody” or “Woody Allen” though his movies are typically niche oriented and play more to his core audience than to wide audiences.

Now, what about Bette? From the time she appeared with Richard Dreyfuss and Nick Nolte in Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (an update on the French film Boudu Saved from Drowning) in early 1986 until the summer of 1988’s Big Business, co-starring Lily Tomlin, Midler was surely the undisputed queen of mainstream Hollywood comedies, all of them developed and released by the people at Touchstone, the then new arm of the Disney corporation, a move that allowed the powerful conglomerate to venture into more noticeably adult, or topical, content, including Splash (1984), Country (also 1984), and even NBC-TV’s The Golden Girls. Prior to her Disney windfall, Midler had famously scored an Oscar nomination for her first leading role in a major motion picture: 1979’s The Rose, a musical drama loosely based on the sad life and times of Texas’s own blues-rocker Janis Joplin. Of course, Midler has also been quoted as saying the harrowing pic was also based, at least in part, on her stormy relationship with her own controlling manager/agent/producer Aaron Russo, who actually co-produced the film; his onscreen counterpart is played by the late Alan Bates, but I digress.  Anyway, in spite of all the acclaim generated by The Rose, Midler’s next big screen feature, Jinxed was a notorious fiasco and pretty much curtailed her acting career, that is, until the folks at Disney came calling. (For those late to the party, before Midler branched into movies, she was a Grammy winning recording artist best known for covers of oldies, torch songs, and a bawdy concert persona.)

After Big Business, Midler seemed bound and determined to score in mawkish dramas. Oh sure, she managed to get by with Beaches, co-starring Barbara Hershey. Based on Iris Rainer Dart’s novel of the same name, Beaches covers a few decades in the lives of up-and-down childhood friends from quite different backgrounds, a variation on the likes of Old Acquaintance (Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins), which had already been remade in 1981 as Rich and Famous with Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen. A mixed bag, Beaches benefited from a smash soundtrack featuring Midler’s Grammy winning cover of “Wind Beneath My Wings”; however, her attempt at revamping Barbara Stanwyck’s Oscar nominated Stella Dallas was much less successful, and soon afterward, Midler and Disney parted ways.  For the Boys, Midler’s labor of love (seemingly inspired by the likes of Martha Raye and Bob Hope), developed through her All Girls Productions, and heavily, heavily marketed by 20th Century Fox during the 1991 holiday season, was a bust though Academy members, impressed as they were by Midler’s pluck, saw fit to reward her with a Best Actress nomination. Since then, her film output has slowed considerably though there have been a few highlights, most notably The First Wives Club, and, okay, I guess Hocus Pocus (1993, also Disney) has acquired a loyal following.

Still, I want to focus on Midler’s original comedy quartet:  Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Ruthless People (a riff on O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” directed by the Airplane trio of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker), the ever-so-slightly Shakespeare inspired Outrageous Fortune  (1987) co-starring Shelley Long (directed by Arthur Hiller), and the aforementioned Big Business with Lily Tomlin (directed by a solo Jim Abrahams). Once again, I want to stress that customers most often asked for “Bette Midler.” Not “Bette Midler and Shelley Long”  and not “Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin.” Just Bette.  These days, I tend to avoid both Ruthless People and Outrageous Fortune. The former is funny as hell, but it hasn’t aged well, becoming a relic of mostly what was awful about the 1980s; that’s pretty much the same with Outrageous Fortune. The production values are lousy, and the producers had to work hard–though not always successfully–to try to hide the fact that Midler was very much pregnant, and while she and Long both had their moments, and their are plenty of laughs, their chemistry didn’t strike many sparks. At least not in the same way that Midler and Tomlin do in Big Business, itself a take-off on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, which is my favorite of all the Midler flicks of that era.

Of course, a comedy about two sets of twins has the potential for a lot of laughs and hilarious plot complications. After all, it’s been working since Shakespeare’s time, right?  Plus, besides the obvious joy in pairing Midler and Tomlin as twins on top of twins,  the movie has strong production values, meaning a handsome, lushly appointed Hollywood sound-stage recreation of New York’s fabled Plaza Hotel, which is where most of the story takes place. That, and some nice NYC exteriors including the real Plaza Hotel. Oh, and cheers to the costume designer Michael Kaplan for coming up with designs that not only serve the characters and help establish their personalities but also serve to show the connections between them, thereby advancing the plot. all of which brings us back to Midler and Tomlin.

What I love most about this film are the performances by these two gifted thesps, each of them bringing to life two distinctive characters. Two actresses, four performances. Midler plays a fiercely ambitious corporate mogul who mixes business with pleasure and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Her twin is naively ambitious with dreams of big city life, most of which have been fueled by watching too much TV, including glitzy prime-time soaper Dynasty. As this character, Midler acts with unfettered joy. When she’s on a roll, her eyes practically sparkle; as the tough talking, demanding executive, she delivers wicked one-liners with supreme self-possession. She even holds herself differently. No doubt, Midler scores the biggest laughs. Audiences are tickled by her bumpkin’s learning curve and startled by her big boss’s bitchiness.  As good as Midler is, Tomlin perhaps goes even further in delineating her characters: one twin is a big city fluttery neurotic with romantic notions of settling down in the country while the other twin is a sturdy, no-nonsense country gal, ever vigilant in her mission to protect the interests of her community from greedy corporate snakes. It’s fun watching Tomlin see how far she can go with each character, with or without a big laugh. It’s not just that she speaks in a different tone of voice for each character or that her body language is so different. No, it’s that these details are different in ways that seem exactly right. Plus, as already noted, the actresses get a lot of help from costumer Kaplan [4]: Midler’s characters tend to favor brighter colors, especially red and burnt orange, with the bumpkin trying to pull together–on a budget–what she believes approximates the glamorous wardrobe of her big city counterpart–without resorting to caricature. Also, look closely at how polka dots appear and reappear between Midler’s characters’ outfits; meanwhile, Tomlin’s separated-at-birth twins are drawn to pastels, especially pinks, while the country gal dresses strictly for comfort or function, and the city girl drapes herself in layers of soft, feminine fabrics.

Speaking of twins, and the clothes they wear, I cannot let pass the opportunity to point out how incredibly similar 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada is to Big Business in one key sequence: the entrance of feared fashion editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) into the Runway offices seems to have been lifted almost frame for frame Midler’s introduction in Big Business. Take a look.

^ In the role of big city Sadie, Bette Midler’s entrance into Big Business’s Moramax  building could have very well inspired a similar sequence in The Devil Wears Prada, 18 years later.

^ A slightly abbreviated version of Miranda’s entrance in The Devil Wears Prada. At about 45 seconds, it starts looking more and more like Big Business. Have fun!

Thanks for your consideration….

[1][2]: USA Today reports on Robert Downey Jr’s status per Forbes:

[3]: Double Jeopardy at Box Office Mojo:

[4]: Kaplan’s many credits include 1983’s influential Flashdance (1983) as well as Clue (1985), and 1989’s Cousins (which I wrote about in June of 2012). He has amassed a total of four Costume Designers Guild nominations, including the recent Burlesque (2011) but, alas, no wins and no Oscar nods. Read more at the Internet Movie Database:


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